This is the 73rd post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Robby Krieger and John Densmore, respectively the guitarist and drummer for The Doors, were roommates in Los Angeles in 1967. One afternoon, Jim Morrison stopped by their apartment, depressed and anxious. Krieger suggested that he and Morrison should go for a walk through Laurel Canyon, thinking that could help calm Morrison.
It did. While on the walk, some lyrics came to Morrison, so he wrote them down as fast as he could. When he returned to Densmore’s and Krieger’s apartment, he shared what he had written:
People are strange, when you’re a stranger,
Faces look ugly, when you’re alone,
Women seem wicked, when you’re unwanted,
Streets are uneven — when you’re down.
His bandmates not only appreciated that his mood had changed, but that he had stumbled upon the promising beginnings of a song. In his book “Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors,” Densmore recalled that afternoon:
Jim smiled strangely and hummed a few bars. Robby’s ears immediately perked up. He knew a hit when he heard one.
“That melody has a nice hook.”
“Yeah, I feel really good about this one. It just came to me all of a sudden … in a flash – as I was sitting up there on the ridge looking out over the city.” His eyes were wild with excitement. ‘” scribbled it down as fast as I could. It felt great to be writing again.” He looked down at the crumpled paper in his hand and sang the chorus in his haunting blues voice.
When you’re strange,
Faces come out in the rain,
When you’re strange,
No one remembers your name…
“People Are Strange” appeared on The Doors’ second album, “Strange Days,” which was released in September of 1967. The song spent nine weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at Number 12.
The Doors’ “People Are Strange” is not the band’s most covered song. According to SecondHandSongs, that would be “Light My Fire.” The band had songs that charted higher and spent longer on the charts. Both “Light My Fire” and “Hello, I Love You” were Number 1 hits. But “People Are Strange” has continued to be covered multiple times each decade in the 50 years since it was first released, in a variety of genres.
New wave singer-songwriter Karel Fialka, who might be best known to UK audiences for his 1987 song, “Hey, Matthew,” recorded “People Are Strange” for his 1980 album “Still Life.” Fialka’s chopped-up keyboards gave the song a herky-jerky pacing, leaving the listener as unsettled as Fialka’s alienated narrator.
But Fialka’s version was easy listening compared to Shockabilly’s “People Are Strange” cover from the band’s 1983 album, “Earth Vs. Shockabilly.” Most of the discernable traits of The Doors’ “People Are Strange” had been scrapped, with a few lyrics and riffs thrown in here or there. It was beyond strange. It was weird as fuck.
Texas band Brave Combo — developed its sound by combining polka, ska, jazz, and salsa — covered “People Are Strange” for its 1987 album “Musical Varieties.” That grab bag of styles might sound jarring, particularly when applied to the vaudevillian “People Are Strange,” but Brave Combo sold the premise. Whereas Morrison sounded aloof and distant, these vocals were frenetic and desperate.
Echo & The Bunnymen recorded a “People Are Strange” cover for the 1987 film, “The Lost Boys.” The cover was the only version of the song to ever chart in the UK, where it spent five weeks on the charts and peaked at Number 29. Echo & The Bunnymen’s “People Are Strange” was released again in 1991. Faithful to the original, it didn’t reinvent the song, though Ian McCulloch was able to put his own spin on the delivery.
In 1992, teenaged actor Edward Furlong released an album in Japan called “Hold on Tight.” Only 15 at the time, Furlong had come to prominence a year earlier for his role as John Connor in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” “Hold on Tight” included a “People Are Strange” cover that sounded like Furlong performing over a karaoke track. And he very well might have been, but given his age at the time, he fulfilled the premise of the song beautifully. Being 15 is tough no matter who you are, but one can imagine that a teen thrust into the spotlight must have felt especially strange.
The Facebook page for The Juggernaut Jug Band describes the band as a mix of “jazz, blues ragtime, swing and original music with washboards, washtubs, kazoos, jugs and various other sundry hardware.” Most of those items are discernable on the band’s “People Are Strange,” which appeared on “Perhaps You Don’t Recognize Us…” in 1996. The band’s style put a cheerful twist on the song: Morrison sounded depressed, whereas these guys sounded pretty happy to be strange and alienated.
Stina Nordenstam included “People Are Strange” on her 1998 covers album of the same name. Her slowed-down version sounded is she recorded it in a barrel, as Nordenstam sounded as if she was yards away from the microphone. The effect, combined with ethereal strings and Nordenstam’s sweet delivery, helped sell the idea of a strange, isolated narrator who felt disconnected.
Alvin and the Chipmunks released an alien concept album in 1998, called “The A Files: Alien Songs.” Among the covers was “People Are Strange,” which Alvin, Simon, and Theodore sang to an alien who felt like he didn’t fit in on Earth. Which started off as a silly concept — the Chipmunks singing the Doors — became poignant, as the sad alien responded to each of the verses with sad recognition.
Released in 2000, the “Darken My Fire: A Gothic Tribute to The Doors” compilation featured a “People Are Strange” cover by UK band Nosferatu that sped up the song using fast drum beats and crunchy industrial guitars. The distorted vocals sounded like a combination of Morrison, Robert Smith of The Cure, and Peter Murphy of Bauhaus.
Rap rock group Twiztid covered “People Are Strange” for its second album, “Freek Show,” released in 2000. The arrangement sounded similar to the original, with a heavy drum beat. It bore little resemblance to Twiztid’s other tracks, which is why it might be the most accessible Twiztid song for non-fans.
Besides being an actress and comedian, Lea DeLaria is also a jazz musician. Her 2003 covers album “Double Standards” had her reinventing a variety of rock and pop songs as jazz numbers. Her “People Are Strange” was delightfully low key, highlighting DeLaria’s range with subtle instrumentation. Like previous versions, DeLaria’s “People Are Strange” had a narrator that didn’t seem to bothered by being strange. And that suited DeLaria perfectly.
Tori Amos has performed “People Are Strange” live in concert at least once, which is not surprising, given that she’s covered many other songs live. She did the song justice, giving it a sense of swagger and whimsy that isn’t present in her other songs.
In 2006, “God Bless Tiny Tim: The Complete Reprise Studio Masters… And More” was released as a boxed set, including previously unreleased Tiny Tim recordings. One of the gems on that collection was the meandering “People Are Strange,” in which Tiny Tim managed to cycle through almost every voice in his repertoire, from his high-pitched squeal to his booming baritone. The best part of the cover might have been Tiny Tim’s repeated delivery of the line “when you’re strange,” in which he seemed to embrace his brand with no hesitation.
Dutch jazz band Young Sinatras recast “People Are Strange” as a big band number for the band’s 2008 album “This Day!” It’s quite the reinterpretation, with “strange” sounding like a positive trait rather than a pejorative. The bright horns and cheery vocals seem more like Michael Bublé or Harry Connick Jr. than Jim Morrison.
Jimmy Somerville’s 2009 acoustic covers album, “Suddenly Last Summer,” could sound surprising to people who mainly know Somerville as the singer for Bronski Beat and The Communards. But even though it had no synthy dance tracks and was solely Somerville singing other people’s work, “Suddenly Last Summer” highlighted the singer at his core, as he was vulnerable and introspective. On both “Hanging on the Telephone” and “People Are Strange,” Somerville stripped out most of the instrumentation so that his voice was the main focus. Somerville is a man of many talents, but one of those is that he can sound both haunting and inviting at the same time. From a certain point of view, his “People Are Strange” cover could be seen as an extension of “Smalltown Boy,” as they are both serviced by Somerville’s experiences with alienation.
That same year, German producer/composer Robert Koch covered “People Are Strange” under his moniker, Robot Koch. With vocals by Graciela Maria, Koch’s airy samples and keyboards had a haunting and almost foreboding sound.
Jazz pianist Eric Robert Lewis, who performs under the moniker ELEW, included “People Are Strange” on his 2012 album, “ELEW Rockjazz, Vol. 2.” That album was a follow-up to 2010’s “ELEW Rockjazz, Vol. 1.” Both albums had him turning modern music into jazz songs, including The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” and U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” ELEW’s “People Are Strange” is straight-forward, but it’s enjoyable in that’s fun. And one can tell that it was probably fun for Lewis to perform the song, as it has a levity that most other “People Are Strange” covers don’t have.
To glean the interests and influences of gothic rockabilly band The 69 Cats, one need look no further than the band’s 2014 EP, “Transylvanian Tapes.” The five-song release featured all covers, in which the band put its darkly comic spin on Duran Duran, Warren Zevon, The Doors, Del Shannon, and Bauhaus. (Never thought I’d type those five artists in one sentence.) The 69 Cats’ “People Are Strange” stayed faithful to the source material while amping up its potential for weirdness. Throughout the song, one could hear influences of Link Wray, The Cramps, and even Vincent Price. These guys are students of knowing how to sound weird, and they do it wonderfully.
As I noted above, “People Are Strange” was not the band’s biggest hit, nor is it even the most covered. When discussing the legacy of The Doors, it’s easy to focus on that groundbreaking debut album, which alone has spawned many of think pieces and retrospective essays.
But what I like about “People Are Strange” is how relatable it is, especially compared to The Doors’ other songs. So many of the band’s lyrics reference literary works that inspired Morrison, but this is a straight-forward song that could be understood on the surface. There’s a depth to the song, but it’s accessible, because feeling like a strange outsider is a universal feeling.
Morrison was a brilliant mind whose lyrics were layered, but some of his stuff was hard to grasp without proper context of the era or his influences. But you don’t need to understand anything about poetry or the late ’60s to be able to appreciate “People Are Strange.” It can be a great entry point for people getting into the band through the covers, because fans of Twiztid, Jimmy Somerville, or Tori Amos can probably already appreciate what it’s like to feel like an outsider. I think that’s why the song has continued to be covered across genres over the past century, because that’s one of the few things Morrison wrote that is relatable in any time period.
It’s certainly more relatable than “I Can’t See Your Face in My Mind” and “Yes, The River Knows.”